Friday, June 10, 2005

"Transforming the Evangelical Meme"

[Subsequent Note: 3 years after I wrote the article below, Barna published newer stats on the topic... and surprise... they tell a completely different story (albeit without mention of our work below or a retraction of their now-legendary meme). See the updated story... along with my analysis of the numerous remaining issues with their divorce-rate research. And here's our newest attempt to put the meme to rest in 2010, as yet another high-profile evangelical publishes his (insightful) commentary at yet another high-profile site.]

Transformation is objectively evidenced in the lives of 'evangelicals'.

I realize this seems to run counter to the now ubiquitous meme playing in 'Christian theaters' near you. Very probably your pastor has even preached it...

"Christians live just like the rest of the world."

A distinction lies though, in the care we take when defining 'evangelical'... not to mention, 'Christian'. Self-descriptions are an illusion, dependent on a wide spectrum of motives. But a person's studied understanding of the Word of God makes all the difference in the world.

Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.
[Rom. 10:17]

While 'positional justification' happens immediately when a person is born again, 'sanctification' -- that is, being increasingly conformed to the image of God -- doesn't happen overnight. It's takes time. It's why Paul had to preach to his people (and us)...

"Do not conform any longer to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is -- -- his good, pleasing and perfect will." [Romans 12]

Change doesn't come easy, nor fast. Which of us doesn't identify with Paul -- even as he writes this late in his life -- when he says, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do"?

But the Bible is true. And transformation is objectively evidenced in the lives of evangelicals... even if not quickly enough or extensively enough to suit any of us.

Recently a local church's blog led me to read Stan Guthrie's interview with Ron Sider in Christianity Today, coming on the heels of Ron's new book, "The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience". As it turns out, Ron had also done a previous article at CT publication "Books & Culture" on the same topic.

I've now finished reading his book, and it's absolutely excellent as he calls us to reexamine ourselves and our institutions and to take seriously our obligation to be distinctive from the culture around us. Get your hands on a copy. You'll be glad you did.

But Ron isn't primarily addressing 'Christians' in general. More specifically, he narrows his targeting to 'evangelicals' -- often meaning self-described evangelicals. Still I didn't wince. All sorts of people describe themselves as 'evangelical', but many of them don't even know what makes them 'evangelical'... it's simply a convenient, notional label.

But then he introduced Barna polls into evidence...

"What is the divorce rate among evangelicals? According to a 1999 poll by Barna, exactly the same as the national average! According to that poll, 25 percent of evangelicals -- just like 25 percent of the total population— have gone through a divorce."

Ouch. The divorce-rate thing again. It's the one handle that authors and preachers seem to most easily get their hands around... and repeat most frequently.

I especially bristled because over the years I've read George Barna's reports religiously and knew that he doesn't use self-descriptions in lieu of definitions. He's much more careful in defining an 'evangelical' according to 9 meaningful & measurable standards. I know how suddenly, when using George' methodology, self-described, notional evangelicals start falling like flies -- slimming their ranks from what is sometimes thought to be more than 20% of the adult population... down to only the 7% whom I refer to as 'Barna evangelicals'.

[Btw, Ron did acknowledge evidence of change as Barna narrows the field even further through a few more questions, to arrive at a tighter group (4% of the population) holding a 'Biblical worldview'. But that just whetted my appetite further. Surely we don't have to narrow it that far to start seeing any real transformation. Do we?]

Bottom line, it just seemed counter-intuitive that despite our sinful shortcomings, that Bible-believing Christians would be so generally 'just like' the rest of the population. Paul, the self-described 'chiefest of sinners', aside -- not to mention myself --it still just didn't make sense.

Did Barna really say what Sider said he said? Say not.

My adrenaline kicked in, and my fact-checking emails kicked out. Without diverging now into an ever-so-tempting diatribe about how 'guys in pajamas' are now also impacting the Christian MSM, let's instead stay on-point and cut to the chase.

Sider was accurate. Barna said it.

When asked why they've removed the (1999) documentation from, a spokesperson told me it is now old data. He went on to say though, that it had received a lot heat over the years from being so misunderstood. Frankly, I suspect they were just as glad when it finally died of old age.

A marital counselor once told me... "It's not so important that you be understood, as it is that you not be MIS-understood." That applies here. And thus my post today. That old data is still being very misunderstood.

Yes, in a Bill Clinton 'Define Is' sort of way, the data as presented is apparently accurate. Thus an endless litany of Christian opponents -- atheists, witches and gay advocates to name a few -- have enjoyed flaunting it in front of us as they chorus together...

"Christianity doesn't work as advertised."

But let's discover the real 'elephant in the room'...

...that the 1999 divorce metrics were stated
as a percentage of the ENTIRE population,
whether ever-married to begin-with, or not!

Statistically determining the overall rates of tarnished apples found in one bin of mixed apples & oranges... vs. another bin of mixed fruit... is... well... interesting but totally unhelpful. And worse, as we can see from the last 5 years of playing the 'telephone game', it's effectively contributed to a complete MIS-understanding of the data, and thus is suboptimizing the Church's ability to deal with the overall problem... the (slow) rate of transformation among believers. And if we're offering the gift of God, eternal life, peace with God now & forever.... and yet at the same time conveying that it really doesn't make a difference in this world... our mixed message is a disservice to truth. Worse, it helps send people to hell as they rest comfortably that the Church has no proof of any of this... and we're equally non-transformed.

So I applaud Barna for storing that loaded flintlock away in the gun-closet for now.

What is the meme that we should be conveying at the speed of Light?

That transformation through new life in Jesus Christ is objectively evidenced as we analyze Bible-reading, Bible-believing, Christ-followers... represented by Barna's category called 'evangelicals'.

How evidenced you ask?

I'm not a researcher, so I'll have to stick with the most obvious evidence, and leave my remaining concerns to the professionals... such as... the suitability of leaning so heavily on the 'ever-divorced' metric, versus a potentially better metric of measuring an 'annual divorce rate'. Likewise my concern about the somewhat older average evangelical being pitted against the younger average non-evangelical... and especially as they might be affected by this elongated time metric called 'ever-divorced'. U.S. Census and common 'census' bears it out -- the older you get, the more apt to eventually experience divorce. And wouldn't this also be true of eventually experiencing cancer, car accidents, dental visits and winning the lottery? But apparently we lack sufficient data to sift out how much or how little impact these have on the issue at hand.

Btw, I've challenged Barna Research to clarify the situation at their site and add yet more data there, especially now that Ron and others have inadvertantly popularized the misunderstanding at issue. But that takes money. If any of you have some money you'd like to contribute to help Barna fund more intense research, especially about underlying attitudes, practices, and misunderstood biblical principles that drive divorce rates even in Christendom, please join the effort for truth and making a difference in the world today.

Further, the blogosphere as you can see, adds to the pile of daily pressures on Barna's small but impactful ministry. But likewise, the Christian blogosphere could help them greatly by effectively transmitting truth... and helping raise funds for objective research. Personally, I'd love to be able to fund a regular measuring of transformation here in the Greater Indianapolis area. How about your city? Are we making a measurable difference as we increasingly come together across former dividing lines, to pray, plan and pursue greater prayer, care & share here in our community?

Although not a researcher myself, I do have pocket-protector and a bean-counter's certificate. I live in numbers daily. In our new information explosion, I have little tolerance for 'simply interesting' numbers. Interesting numbers could distract us all day... while we fail at our mission -- the Great Commission. But I find numbers extremely valuable when they're used as decision-support and symbols to drive us toward our goals... starkly measuring realities along the way and calling us to redouble our efforts. So let me sort out the apples and oranges a bit, and see if it doesn't form a much different picture about evangelicals amid transformation.

If our real objective is to level the playing field so we can make a head-to-head comparison -- and only compare the divorce-rate among MARRIED evangelicals vs. MARRIED non-evangelicals, then let's first find out who's MARRIED and even subject to divorce in the first place.

It's at that point that we realize from additional Barna numbers (Sept 2004) that evangelicals were appx 55% more likely to be married than their non-evangelical counterparts. (77% vs. 49%).

The effect of this clarification? [Is it obvious yet, you math wizards?]

77% of 14.6 million evangelicals = 11.2 million married evangelicals.
If 25% of all evangelicals are divorced, that's 3.7 million divorced evangelicals.
...which equals 33% of those eligible for divorce.

49% of the 194 million non-evangelicals =95 million married non-evangelicals.
If 25% of all non-evangelicals are divorced, that's 48.5 million divorced non-evangelicals.
... which equals 51% of those eligible for divorce.

Thus the now-obvious, head-to-head (51 to 33%) conclusion... In any given year...

Married non-evangelicals are 55% more likely to divorce than married evangelicals.

Transformation is objectively evidenced in the lives of (Barna) evangelicals.

But let's not get comfortable; even now seeing that Bible-believing evangelicals are 'distinguishably' different, Sider's point is well made... we're a long ways from being 'distinctively' different. And the Barna folks advised me that they believe new data will soon show the gap is even slimmer.

Bottom Line:

As we narrow the definitions and focus on those who read the Bible and take it at face-value, we start seeing evidence of transformation. If we want to see yet greater change in our lives & communities, then let's get out our Bible, read it more, study it more, and with more mature Christians who have read it more and studied it more. Begin & enjoy a personal relationship with the Savior found therein. Apply His teachings at face-value. As God intended, it will change the world, not to mention your eternal destiny.

"Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God."

"Do not conform any longer to the pattern of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is -- -- his good, pleasing and perfect will." [Romans 12]


Anonymous said...

1 Corinthians 11:23-32
(23) For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread,
(24) and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me."
(25) In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me."
(26) For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.
(27) Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.
(28) Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
(29) For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.
(30) That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
(31) But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.
(32) But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

Mr. Bill said...

Good work Neil. I think you've done an exemplary job of showing Sider's error with the statistical analysis but with the kind of tone that Christians ought to show everyone, especially one another. His point and your point are both well taken. Thanks for the hard work.

Having said that, I'll toss in my 2cts by saying I don't think the prescription for more evident transformation is more bible reading. Bible reading plus the intent to live life according to Jesus' way plus the accountability and support that comes with authentic community is what is needed.

Anonymous said...

You are not a researcher... good thing too, you wouldn't last long manipulating statistics like that. i'm not saying that the original findings were correctly interpreted but what you did would get you immediatly discredited in the scientific community. I'd like reciprocate the measured tone of your thoughts, so forgive me if I come off as overbearing.
It is strange to me that someone of your ilk is turning to science to answer such questions. The social sciences have long been discounted by strict interpreters of the bible because because of claims that homosexuality is natural, monogamy is not inherent in humans, and, frankly, that religion is a universal adaption to explain the unexplainable (like the religious experiences and altered states with which Jesus and the desciples were very familiar).

To a student of the world, like myself, you seem to be teetering on the fence that separates fundamentalists and the rest of the world. Fundamentalists think science and God are mutually exclusive, the rest of the world think that there is room for both.

S.G. said...

"Fundamentalists think science and God are mutually exclusive,"

That statement simply isn't true. Fundamentalists DO think a lot of statistics are agenda driven. As my good buddy Maurice A. Robinson Ph.D. once opined; "Statistics don't lie but liars do statistics."

That seems about right to me.

Bottom line; committed followers of Jesus Christ have smaller divorce rates than the population at large.